Monday, June 08, 2015

ghost of a chance

Well, there it is.  The greatest of my treasures from my visit in Bend last month.

It may not look like much.  After all, it is just chili powder.  And muling chili powder to Mexico is a bit like lugging the proverbial nasty boy Christmas stocking stuffers to Newcastle.

But it is not just any chili powder.  It is the ground powder of the Bhut Jolokia pepper.  Or what is more commonly known as the ghost pepper.

For a short time, it held the record for the hottest chili pepper in the world.  It is now fifth.  Having first been toppled by the English-bred Infinity pepper.  Then by the English-bred Naga Viper chili.  (What is it with these English peppers?  When I lived there, I had to go to an Indian restaurant to find spicy food.)

In 2012 the Trinidad Moruga scorpion pepper (from Trinidad and Tobaga, of course) took the throne briefly.  Only to be supplanted by the South Carolina-bred Carolina reaper in 2013.

The spiciness of peppers is measured by the Scoville scale.  Anyone who has cooked with chilies knows that hot peppers can vary greatly in their capsaicin (the stuff that gives peppers their WOW!) concentration.

Jalapeños are in a category with a rating of 1,000 to 4,000 on the Scoville scale.  Habaneros heat things up at 400,000 to 450,000.

That gives you some context in which to gauge just how spicy these super-peppers are.  The Carolina reaper, the hottest of all, is 2,200,000 on the scale.  That almost makes my ghost pepper chili powder seem tame at 855,000 to 2,199,999.

You might have noticed the plastic bag around the spice jar.  That is how it is sold in the store.  At first, I thought it was a bit of hype to pump up the powder's notoriety.  The owner told me, quite to the contrary.  The bag is there to catch the powder if the jar breaks.

When I responded with a look that could best be described skeptical, she informed me that she requires her staff to wear both latex gloves and surgical masks when transferring it from bulk to retail containers.  And she advised I do the same.

A quick look at the internet tells me why.  Even without knowing the Scoville scale, I could have concluded precautions must be taken.  When any of these super-peppers are harvested, the workers wear gloves and must repeatedly change pairs because the oil from the peppers starts penetrating their gloves.  For all I know, the gloves may melt.

You may ask: And you are going to use that powder for cooking?  Of course, I am.  I am extremely fond of spicy food. 

I regularly use habaneros in my stir fry.  During my trip to southern Mexico with my cousin Dan and his wife Patty, I discovered the joy of a simple salsa made only of habaneros, lime juice, and a bit of salt.  That salsa spiced up several humdrum meals on the road.  And it does the same here.

The trick is finding recipes to let the powder shine.  The obvious place to start is with homemade chile con carne.  I have found a few suggestions online that should let me experiment without destroying my esophagus.

But, if I am really interested in putting the powder to a proper test, I should try using it in its native cuisine.  The ghost pepper originated in northwestern India and Bangladesh.  So, Indian food would be an obvious place to try out the ghost pepper powder.

Cooking Indian in Mexico is a challenge.  Primarily, because of the lack of specific ingredients.  Proper spices are difficult to obtain.  As are certain types of vegetables.  But I have learned to modify my stir fry dishes here into a form of Mexican-Chinese fusion.  So, why not Indian?

And I always have a great source for suggestions.  My readers.  (By the way, an appropriate suggestion is not "Don't bother eating the stuff."  Because I am going to experiment with it.)  I am certain Don Cuevas will have some ideas.

There you have it, then.  It is time to let the games begin.

Gentlemen, start your fire engines.

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